Elegy for a Pastoral Dream

Visits to my paternal grandmother were studies in chiaroscuro. They always came in the dead of summer or at Christmastime, either vines and shrubbery slowly swallowing the home on a sweltering August day, or amid the bleak empty fields of a Wisconsin winter, perhaps with a dusting of snow. They came after a long drive across the state, past yellow brick churches whose steeples rise above the plain, German industry and weekend brat fries and bars with Pabst Blue Ribbon signs devoid of irony. They felt like trips into a time machine, back into some past American dream, a dive into a memory of a time half-forgotten yet indelible. They were in my world but not of my world, and with Mary Ann Schuettler’s passing this past week at the age of ninety-five, the lenses through which I see those visits do not seem like my own.

At their best, trips to visit my grandma were a passage out of Wendell Berry: a return to a simpler economy, diligent completion of household tasks, satisfaction from simple work in a bucolic farmhouse haven. She tended a sprawling garden and cared for too many cats and had enough birdfeeders out the window to host a small aviary. Holiday dinners were the same year after year, always the duck and the cranberries and the various side salads that I never really ate. Woe unto any visitor who dared express fondness for any dish on the table, for it would be sure to reappear at every single meal thereafter. She tended to her weekly soap operas and watched the news every night so that she could shake her head at whatever was going on in Milwaukee. Any chat on the phone began and ended with a discussion of the weather, which was always too hot or too cold or too snowy or not snowy enough, but always too something. She held off the passage of time through devotion to simple rhythms, to memories of what had been and what still could come out of them.

She carried herself with a quiet dignity, some cross of Catholic devotion and midcentury decency code morals, both demure and unbending. A visit to my Uncle Pat’s blended family one Christmas, a venture in which I was a fish out of water but suitably entertained by the sociology of it all, had her shaking her head over “how people could live like that.” She barely ventured out of Wisconsin in her ninety-five years, though she and my grandfather made regular retreats to the Northwoods near Eagle River. Later, my dad and I would work to get her out of the decaying house, whether on a tour of family history or just on a drive up the Kettle Moraine of eastern Wisconsin, those oak-studded eskers and kettles that I will always view with elegiac eyes.

At other times, life with Grandma could have been scripted by Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, a Midwestern Gothic made all too real by a supporting cast of witch-worshipping neighbors and the excess of cats that spiraled out of control. Visits were vigils through long passages of wordless silence, and if anyone made any effort to improve her lot it was too much trouble, even though subsisting in a tenuous state was far more troubling than any effort to clean up the place. In a visit after a year and a half of Covid isolation my dad, Uncle Pat, and I went at the dried-out cat shit with an ice scraper and cleaning fluids, and as we worked she looked away in shame. Her anxiety at our visits took on an entirely different flavor.

Grandma’s life was not just the sedate passage of time. At one point, my Uncle Chris produced a news clipping with a photo of her and a friend at a Liberace concert; I’m not sure what will happen to the Elvis memorabilia in the dining room display case. Immersion in NASCAR and the Packers livened up her weekends. My dad and I both relish the memory of the night when, after enduring an hour of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Uncle Chris’s behest on Christmas Eve, she shut it off promptly after he went out the door. Hints of spontaneity and verve occasionally peeked out from a life so often buried beneath nerves over the slightest alteration of routine. She was at her best when she cracked that bemused smile and muttered a “God” at some interruption we offered to her otherwise immutable procession.

Above all, she was a survivor. She outlived her rock, my eminently patient and kind-hearted grandfather, by thirteen years; she outlived her entire generation in her family, and all of her friends, too. Even as the trials of life mounted, she kept plodding on, at peace with her pace. She was born in West Allis when it was still a somewhat rural outpost; later, it became a postwar boom suburb and now it is a shifting segment of the Milwaukee inner ring. A similar story took place out in Ozaukee and Washington Counties, where she settled later in life. The farm near Port Washington became a dead end, and later burned; the house they rented after that, near Slinger, became one of two lonely relics at the end of a dead-end road as McMansions sprouted on giant tracts around it. (I’m not sure how often she actually voted, but in sentiment Grandma was a lifelong Democrat, a Catholic still loyal to the party that gave her the Kennedys and disgusted by one that would nominate Donald Trump.) She spent her later years in a state of reminiscence for times gone by, her world now gone, if it had ever truly existed.

Mary Ann Schuettler was the last of my grandparents, three of whom lived into their nineties. The two sides of my family, as I’ve noted in the past, could not be more different. They are two emblematic tales of the divergence of twentieth century America, two different tales for nineteenth century northern European immigrants. My mom’s side moved from the city to the suburbs and, while not lacking a few skeletons, passed along its considerable and accruing advantages to subsequent generations of a sprawling dynasty, a divide made all the more jarring this past week by a rush of emails forming plans for a European cruise. My dad’s side, meanwhile, saw its family farm drift away and clung on afterward in rural poverty. The exception to that trend is my dad, the kid who left the farm for the University of Wisconsin, traveled the world, and, with my mother, created a life for me that had no chance of resembling the one he’d left. My grandparents, while not always fully understanding, were loyal and proud of him, with my grandmother’s letters addressing him as Dr. Schuettler after he got his PhD.

I struggled to bridge this divide, and did so only haltingly. When my grandfather was still alive, I drew some family trees out of them and we visited an ancestral cemetery on her side; in the years after his passing, my dad and I would put Grandma in the car and go on those drives around the sun-splashed hills of the Kettle Moraine, and it was in the back seat on one of those rides not long out of college that I found the jolt that lifted me out of a temporary morass. Later, a more distant relative in nearby Mequon tracked us down after extensive genealogy research, and we came to enjoy visits with a branch of the family with a very different life story, at times even enjoying their generous hospitality instead of the joyous West Bend AmericInn. The addition of the Bridges-Wuesthoff branch to our extended clan showed me my architect great-great grandfather’s legacy in such landmarks as the Schlitz brewery, the dressmaking of another relative for the Pabst family, and the cemeteries dating to the mid-1800s. It was a new window into my Schuettler inheritance that until that point had been one I sometimes struggled to embrace.

The cyclical life brings serendipity: in my grandmother’s final months, my work took me several times to Port Washington, the closest town of substance to the old family farm, and where my dad went to grade school. I got the call that she had passed just before I jumped on a plane for Milwaukee, and later that very day I listened as some of Port’s current leaders reminisced about what the city had been while making peace with its new burst of life on its cozy historic streets and the bluffs that line Lake Michigan. Late the next night, I strolled from my waterfront hotel at one end of a gem of a main street and up to the Catholic church that commands the view of the harbor. I stood before it and felt the burdens of time lift away.

There will be return trips, of course. A memorial at Holy Hill this fall, another work venture or two, likely a few trips down into history for someone who has always experienced the past vividly. With her passing goes a generation, perhaps even a way of life, and a chapter in my own little drama, too. I am left with a gentle hug, a reminder to take care, and a repetition of my mantra from Hannah Arendt: we are not born in order to die but in order to begin.

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